Gerard Butler spreads his bets across the board when it comes to picking movie roles. The 43-year-old actor has been successful in action/beefcake/warrior movies such as 300 and Law Abiding Citizen. He’s done a musical (The Phantom of the Opera), voice work in children’s films (Nim’s Island, How to Train Your Dragon), and even a couple of dramatic classics (The Cherry Orchard, Coriolanus). And then there are movies like Playing for Keeps, aimed at female admirers who have shown a fondness for the rumpled, handsome Scotsman with the notable burr.
After the modest British drama Dear Frankie (2004) with Emily Mortimer and Ghost-derived 2007 weepie P.S. I Love You with Hilary Swank, he has played a sexy boor with a kind heart in a pair of critically lambasted but box-office-friendly comedies, The Ugly Truth with Katherine Heigl (2009) and The Bounty Hunter with Jennifer Aniston (2010). Playing for Keeps is more of the same, though strictly speaking it’s less a romantic comedy than a tangled mess: A sports comeback story, a family reconciliation drama and a contrived sex comedy with a high wince-to-smirk ratio.
Unexpectedly, this is the work of just one writer, Robbie Fox (co-writer of the Mike Meyers comedy So I Married an Axe Murderer and the Pauly Shore movie In the Army Now), although five producers, including Butler, are involved, which may explain the too-many-cooks quality of the broth. Butler plays a former European soccer star, George Dryer, who is now living in Virginia to be near his young son Lewis (Noah Lomax) and ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel), who is about to remarry.
For some reason, George is broke, living in the converted garage apartment of a wealthy South Asian landlord (Iqbal Theba, playing a variation on his clueless, officious principal on TV’s Glee). When not dodging creditors and making home videos imagining himself as an ESPN colour commentator, George shares custody of Lewis with Stacie.
After his ex guilt-trips him into coaching their son’s soccer team, George becomes the object of lust for a trio of soccer moms played by Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman – actresses who are overqualified for these roles. Scenes that are intended to be comic romps end up feeling dispiriting and embarrassing. Greer, as a recent divorcee, is an emotional basket case who cries and clings; Zeta-Jones plays a manipulative vamp dangling a television career opportunity in exchange for sex; Thurman’s character, barely developed, is some combination of respectable society hostess and bedroom tigress. Only Dennis Quaid, who plays her buffoon millionaire husband, gets any comic traction here, as a team sponsor with multiple boundary issues.
Director Gabriele Muccino has previously directed an Italian sex comedy (Kiss Me Again) and an American father-son weeper (the Will Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness). The second half of Playing for Keeps transitions into the latter kind of film, as George helps the timid Lewis out with his soccer skills and, inevitably, gains new lustre in Stacie’s eyes. Biel, playing the only sympathetic female character in the film, gets a few quietly soulful moments as the wounded former wife who learns to rekindle her passion. But with her absurdly bland fiance (James Tupper) getting so little screen time, this is less a romantic contest than a loss by default.
Though the script takes pains to paint George as a passive boy-man, there’s just not enough lovable here and too much of the thoughtless lout. Butler beware: In acting as in soccer, if you keep taking dives, sooner or later you pay the penalty.